Authorities put cyberbullies in crosshairs

Updated: Jan 30, 2024 China Daily Print
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China's police, prosecutors, courts and cyberspace watchdogs helped purify the online environment last year. 

China stepped up its fight against cyberbullying last year, taking administrative and judicial actions to strengthen the protection of netizens' rights and further purify the online environment.

Cyberbullying has caused great harm to some internet users in the past few years and has frequently sparked public outrage.

One high-profile case last year involved a mother in Wuhan, Hubei province, who took her own life after her son, a primary student, was killed when he was hit by a car.

When a video clip of her talking about his death was posted online, some internet users left derogatory remarks about her appearance, saying that she still had time to do her makeup even though she was grieving.

There was no suggestion the comments were a major contributor to her death in June, but they did trigger a public outcry over cyberbullying.

Earlier last year, the death of a university student who was bullied online because she dyed her hair pink also received widespread attention.

The young woman, from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, became a cyberbullying target in July 2022 after she posted photos and videos online showing her proudly presenting her postgraduate admission letter to her bedridden grandfather.

Because of the color of her hair, some netizens likened her to a nightclub worker, while others fabricated rumors that the images showed an elderly man married to a young woman.

She fell into depression due to the harassment, and suffered from eating and sleep disorders. She tried to initiate a lawsuit against the cyberbullies, but the case was halted after she was hospitalized for depression, China Youth Daily reported. She took her own life on Jan 23.

Because cyberbullying, a hot issue around the world, has disturbed order in cyberspace and seriously affected people's sense of public security, Chinese police officers, prosecutors, judges and internet regulators have been ramping up efforts to solve the problem through rule of law.

In September, the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security jointly released a guideline that clarified the definition of cyberbullying and set out harsher punishment standards for perpetrators.

It said those who produce or spread rumors that damage other people's reputations, causing serious consequences, should be charged with the crime of defamation.

It also said that those who organize online manhunts, or collect the personal information of others and send it to more people, should be charged with the crime of infringing upon people's personal data.

Zhou Jiahai, deputy head of the top court's Research Office, said the guideline was formulated to help police, prosecutors and judges deal accurately with cases of defamation and insult, "which are two major charges related to cyberbullying, but have seldom been laid in legal practice".

He said Chinese courts solved 618 defamation cases in 2022, about four times more than in 2013, "but just 43 defendants were given punishment".

He said a lot of litigation was initiated by individuals, who faced more difficulties collecting than prosecutors, and laws did not clearly state when prosecutors should intervene in the investigation of such cases.

The guideline gave prosecutors a stronger legal basis to work from, not only requiring them to charge people who insult or slander several others, or spread defamation multiple times, but also allowing them to initiate public interest lawsuits if they find internet platforms fail to take measures or perform duties related to tackling cyberbullying.

In addition, individuals or organizations that bully the disabled, fabricate sex-related topics to infringe upon others' dignity, or use generative artificial intelligence technologies to publish illegal content must be severely penalized, the guideline said.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's top internet regulator, started the fight against cyberbullying in late 2022 by strengthening the management of online service providers.

It issued a notice requiring internet platforms to apply technologies to improve their alert systems on cyberbullying-related content, with channels for netizens to report misconduct and block unfriendly comments from strangers.

While highlighting the scrutiny of livestreaming and short-video sharing platforms, the administration also reminded netizens to comment in a sensible manner, adding that online accounts inciting bullying would be shut down.

As a result of the notice, a number of social media platforms have optimized the identification and blocking of cyberbullying, and the exposure of accounts suspected of insulting others.

Data released by the Sina Weibo micro-blog platform in November showed that its high-tech content filters had blocked more than 120 million pieces of unfriendly information since the notice was issued, while 225,000 messages had been removed and over 20,000 accounts closed.

Sina Weibo had also provided protection services for more than 8,000 users suspected of being bullied, and had reminded netizens to comment in a sensible manner over 8 million times.

After receiving such reminders, about 60 percent of users deleted their irrational posts, and the number of netizens who sent unfriendly content was 70 percent lower than in the same period a year earlier.

In July, the administration began soliciting public opinion on a draft regulation on fighting cyberbullying designed to further clarify the responsibilities and duties of internet operators and cyberspace agencies. Work on that regulation is continuing.

Judicial and administrative departments promoting measures to fight cyberbullying through rule of law have made protecting young people a priority.

The joint guideline released in September said internet users who bully children should face tougher punishment, while the cyberspace administration's notice said that internet platforms must protect children from cyberbullying.

In June, the administration launched a two-month campaign aimed at purifying the online environment to protect the young, ordering cyberspace agencies at all levels to focus more on combating the cyberbullying of children.

In October, China's first regulation on protecting minors in cyberspace was issued by the State Council.

The 60-article regulation, which came into effect on Jan 1, responded to several hot issues affecting young netizens, including how to protect children's personal information, how to prevent them from becoming addicted to the internet, and how to fight cyberbullying that targets them.

By the end of 2022, China had 193 million netizens age 6 to 18, according to a report issued recently by the China Internet Network Information Center and the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China.

Liu Meichen, a judges' assistant at Beijing Chaoyang District People's Court, welcomed the anti-cyberbullying part of the regulation, saying "the specific provisions will be conducive to preventing misconduct that seriously harms juveniles' physical and mental health."

The regulation urges internet service providers to offer stronger protection for underage netizens by making it easier for them and their guardians to block unfriendly comments from strangers and collect evidence related to online bullying.

"Considering that cyberspace has become a new place where children are frequently bullied, the regulation was urgently needed and essential to help internet platform operators figure out what they should do," Liu said.

Also lauding the regulation for ordering internet platforms to use technologies including artificial intelligence and big data in the identification and oversight of cyberbullying, she said they would help build a safer online environment for children.

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